I awoke from dreams of a blue plague, on a train out of the city.
I returned to London this weekend.
The letter from the doctor said I was clear, my infection wasn’t fatal, and that I was cleared to return for periods of not more than twelve hours.
Jenna also got a letter, which was harder.
The guard at the station took my letter and checked it against the registry, and let me inside. I was surprised to find that the Underground was still operational – some kind of early version of the entirely automated network they turned on – and rode the train, the journey a strange mix of the familiar routines of travelling though London and the alien silence of the abandoned and dirty carriage. The lights flickered off between stations occasionally, not picking up until minutes later, and the only lights into the carriages then were the bright fluorescence of an approaching station. Sat in darkness, waiting for the blinding light. Again.
My shoes clattered and echoed though the abandoned station when I got off, the routine whirr of the elevators and constant announcements conspicuously absent; though the irony of a voice reminding us to Take All Your Belongings With You has echoed though my mind from the day we evacuated to this. All our belongings in the bags beside us, that little we could grab.
The cornershops and kebab places were trashed and looted, and any house nearby, and this made me fear for my own small flat. I needn’t have bothered. Those who had stayed to systematically loot the area were just as infected as those who stayed to defend, and their short and pointless war was eventually an unscored draw a few days later. My flat was sufficiently far from an obvious target to be low on the list, and my windows were intact and the locks on the doors still hale.
The levels of the toxigen have fallen now, to the point where it is likely to be possible to stay within the bounds of the capital for nearly a day before you are liable to die. “In twenty years…”, they say publicly. In fifty, they might risk themselves. Walking into the flat we’d shared, I doubted I could ever return. Memories battered me as I looked around, from the day we moved in, to the day we got the alert to pick up and move. Our bags held clothes, and toiletries, and technology. We took the things we’d need for a few days away, maybe a couple of weeks. As ignored as our house had been, it still looked looted.
Now, I picked up things I’d missed. My headphones, paperwork, a few books I couldn’t bring myself to replace. A couple of soft toys as old as I am. Jenna’s jewellery box, a few things she’d prized that her parents would want to remember her by.
(We’d left, and our neighbour had thrown us his second car’s keys. “I don’t drive” I’d called out to him “Learn fast, mate. You’ve got my number for when you can get it back to me”. He’d almost certainly saved my life)
I left the flat, locking it concienciously behind me. I was intending to post the keys back to my landlord. For all that the flat was probably mine now, I didn’t think I could cope with owning it. It wasn’t worth a lot, anyway.
(We’d got to a screening point on the way out – good little citizens – and her cough had just got worse as we slept in the car and waited for our queue. They passed us as non-infectious, but the looks they gave Jenna as she coughed and rasped her way though the interview were pity).
I travelled back down. The station took my bag of affects to be tested and decontaminated. I’d get an invoice in a couple of weeks, and decide whether I’d pay the decontamination fee. I walked down into central.
Once, many years ago, I walked here on Christmas Day, when the trains weren’t running. Then, London was eeire and quiet. The occasional car wandered the streets, the occasional pedestrian walking around, but I had still never seen Picadilly Circus without people sitting on the statues, without being lit by the neon glow of a coke advert. This October day was bleak and silent, like it was blanketed in a foot of snow. After millennia of being the best city in the world, we had broken London.
When I got home, I went directly to the hospital. They tested me for further infections, but would have let me in anyway. I wasn’t going to make it any worse.
I tried to explain my day to Jenna, and I think she heard me.
By the time I got the decontaminated items back, she was gone.
The last confirmed fatality of the first incident.